The Democratic frontrunner for an open congressional seat in Ohio, Nina Turner, pledged in January that she would not accept campaign contributions from lobbyists or corporations. But weeks later, she appears to have done just that.
“I’m not taking any corporate PAC or lobbyist money,” Turner tweeted on Jan. 16. “If I’m elected, my seat will belong to the people of Ohio’s 11th district.”
According to Federal Election Commission records, however, the Turner campaign reported a March 31 donation of $1,000 from the director of Amare Public Affairs, a firm Turner founded last September as an offshoot of D.C.-based lobbying shop Mercury Public Affairs. And on Jan. 19, three days after her tweet, Turner accepted $250 from a partner at Mercury, per FEC filings.
A fictitious name filing recorded last October with the state of Ohio shows Mercury is the company behind Amare. That direct connection disappeared when the company’s name was replaced on April 26 with the Tampa-based “Highstake 11 LLC.” But business records with the state of Florida show Highstake 11’s only principal agent is Mercury’s CEO, Kieren Mahoney. The company withdrew its Florida registration in late June, but Ohio records still list Highstake 11 as Amare’s ultimate corporate identity.
While Turner’s links to Mercury have been a matter of public record, they haven’t been widely reported beyond a Mercury press release announcing its sponsorship of her firm. And Turner—an outspoken anti-corporate progressive and national co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign—may have good reasons to keep a low-profile connection.
Mercury has gained a great deal of public notoriety over the last few years. The firm had extensive revolving door ties to Trump administration officials, and made millions as a foreign agent for entities associated with geopolitical adversaries such as China, Libya, Russia, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime.
Last year, Reuters reported that the FBI had launched a national security investigation into Mercury client NSO Group Technologies, on suspicion that the shady Israeli-based spyware company had hacked U.S. residents and American businesses.
The firm even drew scrutiny during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Mueller’s team probed Mercury’s covert lobbying arrangement with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and the final report singled out the company for not registering as a foreign agent of Ukraine.
Turner, a former Ohio state senator, has styled herself as a progressive warrior with a no-quarter policy against corporate and lobbying interests. She’s running in a special election to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who vacated her seat in Ohio’s 11th district earlier this year when she joined the Biden cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Polls and fundraising data leave little question that Turner is the leading candidate in the crowded primary. Because the district, which includes Cleveland, skews heavily Democratic—Fudge took more than 80 percent of the vote in 2020—Turner’s principal challenge will likely be her top primary opponent, Cuyahoga Democratic Party Chair Shontel Brown, whom Turner and her allies have painted as a “corporate Democrat.”
Brown, however, has mounted a comeback, boosted by endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), and the Congressional Black Caucus. She and her surrogates portray Turner as a figurehead for increasingly toxic rhetoric on the left. And Brown’s contingent has also highlighted Turner’s antagonistic stance against President Joe Biden, including controversial comments during the 2020 election.
Last month, the Turner campaign released internal data showing the progressive polling at 50 percent, with Brown trailing by 35 points.
But if the race comes down to the better funded candidate, it’s Turner’s to lose. Her campaign claims to have raised nearly a million dollars in June, and FEC records from the first and only reporting period this year show she outraised Brown more than two-to-one.
That period covers Jan.1 to March 31, the day the director of Amare made his $1,000 donation. Turner had reiterated her pledge the day before.
In response to The Daily Beast’s questions about the donations and Turner’s connections to Mercury, a campaign spokesperson provided a 191-word statement, but did not address any of The Daily Beast’s questions and instead focused on campaign issues.
The statement briefly touted Turner’s multimillion-dollar fundraising haul, but the bulk was a broadside against Brown. It labeled her a “corrupt” politician who once ended a media interview early in order to attend a fundraising event “headlined by lobbyists.” Those lobbying interests, the statement said, “see an ally” in Brown, because “she voted for millions in contracts for her partner, his family, and her business clients.”
“Brown’s shady politics are exactly what is wrong with Washington and why poor and working people and communities of color always get left behind,” the statement concluded.